Heat & Home / The Heating Hub
Move With The Times
Husband-and-wife team Ben and Jo Alsop have grown a successful gas business since starting up in 2008, and the emergence of renewable heat technologies has complemented that well
Rochester-based Heat & Home was set up by Ben and Jo Alsop in 2008, after Ben had spent eight years working as a breakdown engineer for British Gas. “Ben felt that he could go no further technically with British Gas,” says Jo. “I had always wanted to run a business, but had no fixed ideas about what sort of business that would be.”
The couple made the decision to start up on their own, with Jo working part time developing the business and Ben taking on the work. “We started off running the business from our middle bedroom but we picked up quite a lot of letting agent work early on,” recalls Jo. “We always had a vision that we would be a company rather than a sole trader, and within a couple of years we’d taken on another engineer.”
Initially, the main focus was on repair and maintenance for existing gas installations, and this remains a core part of the business today. “The boiler breakdown side has grown organically and we generate enough work to keep one breakdown engineer pretty well occupied all year round,” says Jo. “Then we’ve got one or two crews installing gas boilers.”
Other parts of the business have disappeared as the company has become more established on the gas side. “We’re not plumbers at all; we don’t fit any bathrooms or change any taps,” says Jo. “We had those services quite early on – we also offered electrical services because Ben is a qualified electrician – but we dropped those to concentrate on specialist heating areas.”
In recent years, however, the business’s core operations have been supplemented by a growing focus on renewable heating. This started, says Jo, when the company moved into dedicated premises on an industrial unit in the centre of Rochester.
“We had a lot of space initially and wanted to use it in a more innovative way than just offices and a warehouse,” she recalls. “Around the same time, Ben’s interest in new technologies and my focus on expanding our services took us down the wood-burning-stove route. We qualified in dry stoves and ‘wet’ boiler stoves that can run radiators and hot water, which crossed into our existing gas business well.”
The couple realised that there weren’t many wood-burning showrooms locally and an opportunity existed to fill that gap. “This was definitely what we had been looking for and we set up a wood-stove showroom in 2011,” Jo explains. “We’ve created a real niche for ourselves; we do a lot of domestic systems where our customers have a wood-burning boiler stove combined with solar panels and maybe a gas, LPG or oil boiler.”
Another growth area for the business has been biomass boilers. “This is also a niche technology,” Jo continues. “We have spent three years establishing our biomass services and we are now a very credible and experienced installer in the industry for both domestic and commercial installations.”
The increase in the Renewable Heat Premium Payment, announced in 2013, helped encourage people to look at such projects, and Jo expects the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) tariff scheme to increase interest further.
“Biomass is only suitable for certain households so its application can be limited at times, as space and money are real barriers,” she says. “When it is suitable, the installation costs are significantly higher than for a fossil-fuel boiler. The domestic RHI will encourage more homeowners to spend the extra money because they will recoup those costs over seven years of government payments. They will also make a decent saving on their fuel, too, if they are off mains gas.”
The commercial arm of the business, The Heating Hub, is also increasingly involved in biomass installations (see box) – something that Jo attributes to the company’s experience in both renewables and gas. “One of our key distinctions is that we haven’t converted to being entirely a biomass company,” she says. “We’re a heating company, and this is one of the things we do. We simply would not be a credible biomass installer without a knowledge of conventional heating systems. So we have kept all our heating services, and it’s worked very well.”
The company also takes on underfloor heating installations at newbuild properties and solar thermal projects, which tend to work best at larger houses where the energy generated can make a contribution to the heating as well as hot water, says Jo.
After a whirlwind few years, the business is now hoping to consolidate its position, with Ben undergoing a transitioning process over the past six months. This will ultimately see him move off the tools to spend more time designing the mechanical and electrical systems, overseeing large projects and advising builders and consultants on installing biomass systems.
Today, the company employs 10 engineers – including four apprentices – as well as three other office staff and someone to look after the stores, and turns over around £1 million annually. “We’ve finally reached a point that we have been working towards for a long time,” says Jo. “We have a strong team of skilled engineers and apprentices led by Ben, and a strong company ethos for quality and learning. We are ready for a new age in heating.”
‘One of our key distinctions is that we haven’t converted to being entirely a biomass company. We’re a heating company, and this is one of the things we do’
Heat & Home recently installed an 80kW Fröling pellet boiler – backed up by a Worcester GB162 – at the head offices of Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. The park hosted the London 2012 white-water rafting event and is the final destination for the rebuilt Olympic velodrome.
The job was particularly challenging due to the nature of the building and its existing heating system, as well as tight space constraints. “It was a retrofit into a grade II listed building with cast-iron radiators,” Jo says. “It was a very old system and we were putting a very modern boiler on to it.
“We were able to demonstrate, through innovative design, how we could bring together biomass and fossil-fuel heating systems in a small basement space. We often win jobs like this because we don’t shy away from difficult installations. We always design the best scheme for the customer, not the easiest installation for us.”